Thursday, August 03, 2006

"Miss Lou's" style and patois have influenced modern rappers and DJs around the world

Louise Bennett-Coverley
September 7, 1919 - July 26, 2006

Poet and broadcaster whose courageous use of patois inspired Jamaicans to take a pride in their language

"Miss Lou's" style and patois have influenced modern rappers and DJs around the world (Esther Anderson/Corbis)

KNOWN fondly on her Caribbean island and throughout the Jamaican diaspora as “Miss Lou”, Louise Bennett-Coverley was a cultural icon on a par, among her own people, with Bob Marley, one of many artists she influenced through her poetry in the island’s patois.
Marley, who initially dreamt of being a soul singer after the style of the American Sam Cooke, credited her with giving him the pride and conviction to include in his songs words in his own dialect — which until then had been considered a marketing liability.

Although she lived in Canada for almost the last two decades of her 86 years, for reasons involving her husband’s health, Bennett-Coverley was considered the mother of Jamaican culture and was granted the Order of Jamaica by the Government in 1974, giving her the official title “the Honourable”. Her return visits in recent years were treated like state occasions.

Bennett-Coverley studied at the Royal Academy for Dramatic Art in London after the war and was one of the first Jamaicans to sing and read poetry on what was then called the BBC’s West Indian Service, now the Caribbean Service.

Perhaps her greatest legacy was turning her island’s creole — a mixture mainly of English and West African tongues brought by slaves — from a thing to be ashamed of in class-conscious and racist colonial Jamaica into a proud vehicle for poetry, song, dance and drama, a new cultural phenomenon in its own right.

Recording some traditional patois songs he had first heard on her 1954 album Jamaican Folk Songs, including Banana Boat Song (“Day-o, Day-o, Daylight come and me want go home”) was what launched the career of Harry Belafonte.

Louise Bennett was born in the island’s capital, Kingston, in 1919, and was brought up by her dressmaker mother. It was not just from her story-telling mother and grandmother, but also from customers from all walks of life, rich and poor, that she picked up the tales she would soon turn into folk songs, poems or often pantomime in the patois.

“Everything that’s important comes from folklore,” she said. “From folklore; from stories and songs that are handed down from one generation to another, I learnt everything about history, manners, geography, philosophy, love, morals and religion from stories my grandmother told me.”

In her late twenties Bennett won a British Council scholarship to RADA, starting in 1945, believed to be the first black student there. She gained her diploma just around the time of the 1948 arrival on board the troopship Empire Windrush of the first batch of almost 500 Jamaicans shipped in to help with Britain’s postwar reconstruction.

As more and more Jamaicans arrived, Bennett found occasional work at the BBC, first reading her poems or singing her songs, later producing or presenting programmes in the patois to make the new immigrants feel at home. Her first performance was on the programme Bal Creole on June 30, 1950.

The Jamaican immigration inspired her to write one of her most famous poems, Colonization in Reverse, which was a light-hearted satire but unwittingly predicted the backlash against immigration from right-wing politicians such as Enoch Powell:

What a joyful news, Miss Mattie
Ah feel like me heart gwine burs’
Jamaica people colonizin’
Englan’ in reverse
By de hundred, by de tousan
From country and from town
By de shipload, by de planeload
Jamaica is Englan’ bound

Bennett returned to her island in her thirties, to seek a career in entertaining and to educate other artists in what she had learnt. She married the local actor and impresario Eric Coverley, known on the island by his nickname Chalk Talk, in 1954.

While “proper” or “BBC” English was still considered the one to respect or master, and the patois was considered “bad English”, Bennett-Coverley, by then widely known as Miss Lou, brought a new sense of pride to poorer homes with a series of radio shows, notably Miss Lou’s Views and Laugh with Louise, in which she told hilarious stories, in the dialect, either learnt as a child, or from her own observations, often bitterly satirical and usually quoting her “Auntie Roachy”.

Even after independence in 1962 some sectors of the Jamaican population considered, and some do to this day, that speaking creole was simply not cultured, a sign of poverty or illiteracy. Bennett-Coverley had been criticised for her poems ever since secondary school, where she was taught to dance the Highland Fling and sing Greensleeves, and she could not find a publisher until the Daily Gleaner took a chance and gave her a regular weekly slot. It became one of the most popular parts of the newspaper.

Several books of poems were eventually published, notably the bestselling Jamaica Labrish (gossip) in 1966, which features one of her best-known poems Noh Lickle Twang (Not even a little accent), berating a friend who has come back from living in the US no better off, without any sign of having captured the American dream, not even a “twang”.

Yuh mean yuh goh dah ’Merica
An spen six whole mont’ deh
An come back not a piece betta

Dan how yuh did goh wey? For many years, her double act with the popular male comedian Ranny Williams in The Lou and Ranny Show topped the radio ratings, in Jamaica, giving her a chance at her own TV programme for children, Ring Ding, which turned her into a serious celebrity, easily recognisable by her ample size and African-style dresses and headwrap. After venturing into comedy and pantomime, she was appointed MBE in 1961, while Jamaica was still a colony, for services to Jamaican art and culture.

Bennett-Coverley recorded several albums of poems or songs, often talking over background music, and, although these were generally folksy, her technique was seen as influencing later artists, rappers and DJs, and won her a reputation as one of the original “toasters”, artists who talk or rap to recorded music.

Ironically, some of the Jamaican patois she spent her life promoting became part of the preferred slang among non- Jamaican gangs in other islands of the Caribbean, as well as in New York, London and elsewhere.

Louise Bennett-Coverley’s lifelong motto, now legendary to Jamaicans at home and abroad, was “Howdy an tenky bruk no square” (roughly translatable as “caring and gratitude create harmony”, a forerunner of Bob Marley’s One Love). There is little doubt that her promotion of Jamaicans, their language and culture was at least as important to what is now known as Brand Jamaica — the marketing of the island as a tourist attraction — as the great reggae singer’s posthumous contribution.

Her death put all Jamaica into mourning and tributes poured in from around the world. Jamaica’s Prime Minister, Portia Simpson Miller, described her as “our nationally beloved cultural icon, my role model and mentor”, adding “walk good, Miss Lou”, a traditional, respectful patois farewell to people departing.

Bennett-Coverley’s husband predeceased her in 2002. She is survived by a son and what she called “many adopted children”.

Louise Bennett-Coverley, MBE, folk poet, comedian and entertainer, was born on September 7, 1919. She died on July 26, 2006, aged 86.

No comments: